MSF operations in Nigeria

Information as of April 21, 2000
MSF is one of the very few international aid organisations operating in Nigeria. Most organisations left the country during the military regime of Sani Abacha, who had the writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa hanged. The present MSF programmes began in 1996, when meningitis and cholera epidemics broke out in the north of the country, costing the lives of thousands of Nigerians. MSF teams vaccinated more than 3 million people and offered medical aid to 30,000 patients. The very beginnings of MSF started in 1971 as a result of the Nigerian civil war when a group of French doctors decried the carnage in Biafra and broke away from the Red Cross to form MSF. The main office is in Lagos, from where MSF coordinates a national programme in order to react quickly to epidemics and ethnic violence. In 1998, a branch office was opened in the northern city of Kano, which lies in the so-called 'meningitis belt'. This summer MSF plans opening an aids treatment programme in Lagos. Nigeria has over 5 million HIV positive infected people. Nigeria, the African giant with over 110 million inhabitants, received a new, democratically-elected government last year, after 30 years of military dictatorship. In October last year, MSF began a new project in the south-east, in the Niger Delta, after several exploratory missions. The federal state of Bayelsa with its 1.5 million inhabitants - the majority of them Ijaws - has the least medical facilities in the Delta. Mother and child mortality rates are high, and malaria is the main cause of illness and death in this watery region. The people there have hardly any access to good healthcare, sometimes having to travel for two days by canoe to reach a healthpost. Health workers are often insufficiently trained, if there are any at all. Another reason for MSF wanting to have a presence in the Niger Delta is that the region is a powder keg that could explode at any moment, having for many years been the scene of social conflict, violence, human rights violations and kidnapping. The causes lie in the extremely uneven distribution of oil wealth, the economic backwardness and the environmental pollution. In a context such as this, situations of acute need for medical help can arise. Such a situation occurred at the end of 1999 in the fishing village of Odi on the Niger. In November last year, the Nigerian army raided the village in order to arrest a group of young people who had killed 12 policemen. The village was blockaded for days, raked by small arms and finally set on fire. Most of the inhabitants fled, but older men and women in particular remained behind. An MSF team found 500 distressed people among the smoking ruins at the beginning of December. The team gave medical assistance to the victims - who were in shock condition, some of them covered with burns - and later distributed blankets and plastic sheeting.